Receiving the Precepts and Having a Teacher

One should be mindful at each moment of the ceremony and receive the precepts as one's own.

Dogen Zenji

I’d like to share thoughts on the precepts ceremony and how it connects with the teacher-student relationship within Soto Zen as I have come to understand it. I want to underscore that there are multiple perspectives on what a teacher-student relationship is, depending on who you ask. Here, I draw upon the history of the Soto tradition.*

A priest in Soto Zen, plays a certain role within a temple, and figuring out what that role is, and how a student ought to relate is not always immediately obvious.  It gets complicated in instances where there are multiple teachers, each with different training backgrounds and expectations.  Drawing on history, then, can be illuminative, and bring us into a wider context of what the teacher-student relationship may look like in regards to formally receiving the precepts.

Unlike some schools of Buddhism where the teacher plays the role of guru, in Soto Zen the teacher is never a guru.  This is not to critique the guru-centered relationship but to note important and subtle differences within Buddhism. 

In contemporary American culture, a student might decide, after practicing some time with a particular teacher, to receive the 16 lay precepts in a formal ceremony with that teacher.  There may be some preparation for this ceremony such as studying writings by Soto priests on the precepts, sewing a rakusu (abbreviated, smaller Buddha robe), or increasing one’s commitment to practicing with a teacher at their temple.  In my case, I spent several months learning how to sew a rakusu.  My teacher expected that I and all her students would, in receiving the precepts, commit to coming to one sesshin (3-day intensive meditation retreat) a month for a year, as well as the years that followed the ceremony.  Sometimes there were other stipulations as well, such as doing 10,000 bows.

Daien Bennage Roshi (left) is Daishin's root teacher

All this is well and good.  Personally, having goals to meet helped me stay focused on practice, and I suspect that is the case for many people.  While I understand why this is done today, historically the precepts ceremony did not cement a formal student-teacher relationship.  Traditionally, receiving the lay precepts never came with an obligation on the part of the student to remain loyal to a particular teacher or sangha.  The lay precepts ceremony, rather, is a commitment to living an ethical life, and is meant to be a vehicle in which the preceptee becomes Buddha.  The ceremony confirms Dogen Zenji’s teachings that zazen (sitting Buddha) and the precepts are one.

 

Historically, the 16 precepts were conferred upon large groups of people by the cooperation of several priests.  In fact, in Japan this is still done.  In November 2022, the 100th anniversary ceremony of the first Soto Zen temple in North America, Zenshuji, marked this great event with a 5-day precepts ceremony as it is done in Japan.  No formal teacher-student relationship was expected prior to nor after the ceremony.

 

Moreover, the blue rakusu (Buddha Robe), commonly associated with receiving the lay precepts in America, is a contemporary development in Soto history.  It has not traditionally been the case that in doing a lay precepts ceremony a rakusu is sewn or conferred with the precepts.  In fact, the precepts ceremony as commonly done in American temples today is derived from a ceremony where the wife in a Japanese family temple receives the precepts.  This ceremony, in many cases, included receiving a (sometimes) green rakusu.  In Japanese society, the wife wearing a rakusu made it clear who lay members of the temple could go to for advice about practice if the priest was not present, or if the parishioner felt more comfortable talking with the priest’s wife.  There may be other reasons as well for the rakusu being donned on the temple wife that I’m not aware of.

 

We may benefit from acknowledging that some of the early pioneer non-Japanese American Zen teachers took creative liberties in changing the tradition when they expected a teacher-student relationship based on having conferred a rakusu during a precept ceremony.  Admittedly, the process of receiving precepts with a rakusu is beautiful and worthwhile if done from a place of choice on the part of the student.  A person may spend a lot of time sewing and devoting themselves to the three treasures and find deep meaning in this course of practice, as well as in committing to their teacher.

 

My point, however, is neither to advocate for returning to the tradition nor to stamp approval on these new changes.  In either case, a pledge of allegiance to the teacher is not required in Soto Zen by a lay person, historically.  I personally do not assume such a relationship when I confer precepts.  

Committing to practice with a particular teacher in America, for me, is a separate issue from conferring the precepts.  If someone would like to develop a formal teacher-student relationship with me, then I would work with that person independently to consider what that might look like.  Otherwise, I encourage lay students who formally receive precepts to continue to investigate the Dharma and apply those precepts in their daily life as best they understand them.

I also encourage students to seek advice from a teacher on how to apply the precepts in difficult situations.  However, a teacher’s guidance should not be confused with a judge-like authority telling the student what to do.  Responsibility for practicing precepts lies on the student.  As Dogen Zenji writes, “receive the precepts as ones own.”  These ethical guidelines are not as black and white as they may appear to the common observer.  They require nuance in each situation.  Every case is different, and there is no judge watching our every move.  Ultimately, there’s no substitute for experience nor for trial and error.

* I draw upon my understanding of the oral transmission from various Japanese and non-Japanese teachers I have encountered within Soto Zen, particularly those members of the Association of Soto Zen Buddhism, as well as the Gyojikihan or Standard Observances of the Soto Zen School, Volume 1. This is a manual published by Sotoshu Shumucho, the administrative headquarters of Soto Zen in Japan. It is a standard book of ceremonies detailing daily, monthly, and yearly ceremonies, as well as occasional ceremonies.

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